Following the Conference on the Channel Tunnel (Borders and Migration) held at Brunel University London on 12 October, we are publishing this extended post by Daniel Gordon on the situation in Calais. Daniel Gordon is Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University, and the views expressed here are his own.
It was only last year. But it feels like another age. Before that all too brief period in the autumn of 2015 when seemingly everyone paid lip-service to being pro-refugee, before every anti-migrant pseudo-rationalisation had to be prefaced with ‘Of course I do feel for these people’s plight, but…’. Before what, in view of the events of 2016, now culminating in the demolition of the Calais Jungle, might appear as one of those turning points when history fails to turn. Before that picture of one dead child on a beach, the obscenity of which belatedly and temporarily galvanised Europe’s consciences into action with the simple but potent realisation that can be summed up in three words – THESE ARE REFUGEES – even though literally thousands of people had been dying on boats for years before that message was widely understood. Yet before that picture, a turn in opinion had been building for months. My experiences over an August bank holiday weekend in Calais may shed some light on how that happened.
So why did I go? It began with an email. My wife, who had been at the sharp end of working with refugees in the UK for over 20 years, received a circular from the Campaign to Close Campsfield – the prison for refugees outside Oxford that opened when we were both first year students there and remains unclosed 23 years later. I’m supposed to be an expert on the history of immigration, racism and anti-racism in France. I’ve also been trying to become an expert on the history of transport in France, and the relationship of transport inequality to social inequality. So when the email said some people called Bikes Beyond Borders are cycling from London to Calais on the August Bank Holiday to give bikes to refugees, who need them to get around Calais because the government keeps pushing them further and further away from the town centre, my wife said why don’t you join them?
How could I refuse? How could I sit here in my ivory tower? We’d just been to Greece on holiday. We’d seen Syrians arriving by boat at Piraeus and boarding a metro, we’d seen these respectable middle-class families in brightly coloured headscarves reduced to sleeping rough in a square in the seediest part of Athens. And if there’s one flashpoint north of Greece that preoccupied the British gaze in 2015, it was Calais. My wife has been telling me for months I should go. But I don’t really want to become one of the endless, to borrow a phrase, swarm of journalists and filmmakers writing about other people’s misery in Calais. So, the conversation in my head goes, it’s not enough to be a bystander: surely I have a duty to help in some small way? The bike idea gives me a kind of ethical permission, a sense that my visit will have some practical purpose. OK, there is the small matter that I can’t actually ride a bike – I’m rubbish at balancing. But that one’s easily solved – my wife wants to donate a folding bike she used to cycle around Liverpool in a previous job: I can take it down on the train. I’ll pack my rucksack with stuff to donate.
The other irony is: I always seem to be going past Calais. My work often takes me on the Eurostar to Paris, for example for meetings of an oral history project on immigration activism, or to the British Embassy for the launch of another project on 20 years of cross-Channel train travel. All sorts of ironies there given the situation in Calais with people blocking the Eurostar in their desparate attempts to reach the UK. Sure, I often visit the Parisian banlieue. Sure, I’ve been to the sites of the shantytowns that existed there in the 60s. Yet as for Calais, which has Europe’s largest shantytown right now, I’d only caught a ferry there once this century. It was different back in the 80s, before the Channel Tunnel. Family holidays in France meant getting the boat, or even the hovercraft, to Calais. But nowadays the relatively privileged kind of people who get the Eurostar just speed through, oblivious both to the refugees, and to the slow decline of one of the most economically troubled towns in France, that relies for business on a cross-Channel trade that can just pass it by. Once English monarchs said that Calais would be engraved on their hearts: today the English middle classes can speed right past. I only usually notice Calais to observe from a distance that the spire of its town hall looks very like that of my home city, Chester. More recently, though, it has become impossible not to notice more. The number of police vans with flashing lights you see just from the train is getting ridiculous. Through train delays, the situation in the Jungle has started impinging on the journeys of the privileged people, the ones with papers.
I hardly even know what to call this latter group. One TV news report from Budapest Keleti station, as it was closed to thousands of refugees trying to get to Germany, said that ‘non-migrant passengers’ had been allowed to enter the station through a side entrance. ‘Non-migrant passengers’. It’s a contradiction in terms: every passenger is migrating somewhere, even if only for the day. Was I a ‘non-migrant passenger’, when I boarded a night train to Bucharest from that station as a 19 year old backpacker? And what about the East German refugees at Keleti in 1989? Who in the West would have dared say the East Germans were just economic migrants in search of a better life in prosperous West Germany, and who should just sod off back to the GDR?
This time Calais is OUR Berlin Wall. It is the likes of Viktor Orban, in the unashamedly xenophobic version, or David Cameron, in the smoothly hypocritical cod-liberal version, who are today’s Eric Honeckers and Egon Krenzes. Confronted with mass movements of people seeking safety and freedom – of the very democratic masses who tried to make the Arab Spring – today’s Honeckers, with their fences and their tear gas, have been caught out on the wrong side of history. Of course at some point the analogy can be overextended. I am not claiming that either the UK or France is a totalitarian state. But if you are stuck behind it, a fence is a fence, a wall is a wall, and if you die trying to get through, you are a victim of the political system that built it. Back home, I did some sums based on findings of research on Berlin carried out by the Potsdam Centre for Research for Contemporary History. I was shocked to discover that the death rate in Calais is at least as bad as at the Berlin Wall. Shamefully, in 2015 about 23 people died as a result of UK border controls in Calais – exceeding the 22 killed during the very worst year in Berlin (1962, the year after the Wall was built). Since the death rate in Berlin subsequently declined to between 0 and 4 per year, that means that in Calais last year, we killed as many people as the Berlin Wall killed during the last decade and a half of the Cold War. So far in 2016, the death toll has reached 14.
Yet the political significance of a fence depends on whose voice matters. For today’s Honeckers, the surging crowds are not their people trying to get out, but the non-people trying to get in. In 1989, change came when people saw through the ideology of ‘actually existing socialism’, ‘fugitives from the Republic’ and ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’. In 2015, I felt that change just might be coming, as more and more of us saw through the official ideology of ‘illegals’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and ‘safe third countries’ and ‘Dublin convention’, and saw the non-people for who they are: fellow human beings in need of protection and solidarity, who are paying us the compliment of aspiring to our values. But as long as today’s Honeckers can gain more votes from those of us who remain fearful, the fences will stand, the fences will grow higher, and fences will become walls: change will come when we are no longer scared.
And so to Calais. Amongst other clothes, I stuff in my rucksack the trousers and coat that belonged to my great-uncle Sid, a London tailor and, in his latter days, crooning jazz singer, who died in 2014. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Odessa. He served in RAF ground crew in France at the end of World War Two. A decent and generous man, he had been of no fixed abode himself once, and had very few possessions. It would surely be appropriate for some of them to go to homeless immigrants a century on. Then I head round Tescos, and the charity shops of Chester, with a shopping list gleaned over the internet from Secours Catholique in Calais. Socks, torches, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, a French-English dictionary. In the morning, I get on a train with the folding bike, carry it from Euston to St Pancras, and board Britain’s first high-speed domestic railway. What with the climate of anti-migrant hysteria that’s reigned for years, I’m almost scared to tell anyone where I’m going. En route, I overcome my fear and confess to two people. Women will be more sympathetic than men, I guess. And I’m pleasantly surprised to receive nothing but positivity, including encouragement from a kind taxi driver in Dover: she has been seeing a steady trickle of Brits heading to help in Calais.
The only problem is, because DFDS Seaways don’t take foot passengers, I have to board as a cyclist. I unfold the bike and wheel it all the long way round along the road, through customs and check in towards the queue to board. I’m a man on a mission, heading past all the cars queuing that remind me of my childhood to queue up with just one other bike. I’m worried about attracting suspicion: after all, I am a lone dark man with a beard and a rucksack. But the worst that happens is that an official tells me to ride my bike, and I tell him I can’t, he asks why and I say because it’s my wife’s bike and move on. No-one actually stops me: I’m one of the privileged migrants – I have a British passport, and it’s not illegal, yet, to give clothes to the homeless.
The journey is short, and as the ferry approaches Calais people are sunbathing on the beach. I, and the sole other cyclist on board, have to wait for every single car and lorry to drive off from the car deck. In this transport mode, a cyclist is already a second-class citizen: a pedestrian wheeling a bike is beneath contempt. As the other cyclist speeds off, I am left wheeling slowly, alone, following exit signs all around the immense port, up and over and down ramps. The most direct exit into town has been sealed off, so I have to go a long way round parallel to Mr Cameron’s fences, towards the only exit. Two forbidding lines of high barbed wire fences send the clearest of messages. Eventually, I am relieved to reach the exit and double back along the road. There is a vanload of gendarmes at the exit, and no doubt my presence has been observed, but they don’t stop me, and slowly drive off. After all, their job is to stop people getting into the port, not out. What the British Eurosceptics never fully appreciated was that by moving the UK border to Calais, their dirty work of keeping out undesirable aliens from our green and pleasant land has been subcontracted to the French state.
By the time I reach the port exit, I am profusely sweating, and wheel into town too late for my appointment at Secours Catholique, the NGO who run the main clothing distribution initiative Le Vestiaire des Migrants, who I had contacted by phone and had kindly offered to take my donation at a time when they aren’t normally open. I phone one of their volunteers, who congratulates me on my French, and a conversation follows in which he is needlessly apologetic in playing down the Catholic nature of the organisation, emphasising that it is a state-approved charity (not a line likely to endear them to the anarchists among those who come from the UK, but there we are). Don’t worry, I say – I’m a Jewish atheist married to an Anglican vicar’s daughter and it’s all the same to me. What’s important is that they can be trusted to get the stuff to the people who need it. He effusively tells me he is honoured to speak to a Jewish person, and I arrange to come back the next day.
While waiting, I step back into the banal existence of a francophile tourist, and exercise my privileged freedom to do the kind of things it’s easier to do in France than in the UK: go and see a film about post-1968 French feminism at the local arthouse cinema, buy a copy of L’Humanité, eat an Algerian merguez sausage. That said, Calais is very northern: on a Saturday night at the local chippy, as local customers and staff cheerfully flirt with each other in the queue, you could almost imagine yourself in an episode of Coronation Street. As they say, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis – this is the northern France I normally sweep past. By chance, I even stumble across the end of a free open air gig by Louis Bertignac, formerly guitarist with Téléphone, the 80s French alternative rock band that, when I studied for GCSE French, wrongly thought was a figment of the imagination of the authors of the textbook Tricolore.
The next day the local press, when it isn’t complaining about the British dumping all responsibility for their migrant problem on Calais, features a local Calaisien who, ironically enough, has bicycled all the way to Jerusalem and back to visit trouble spots far from home. Asked about the problems in his home town, he, like most people here, blamed the British. I visit the famous town hall, with its views from the belfry. The municipality is doing its best to keep up appearances, with a street festival and the world’s largest exhibition of elephant statues. Ironically, Calais actually has a cheap municipal bike hire scheme: but given that to use it you need to a) identify yourself and b) have a credit card, it’s not surprising that refugees aren’t accessing it. But the mask of normality slips. Notices in the town hall toilets order one not to wash in the washbasins. At one key-side location, a sign even sinisterly orders that the distribution of meals is prohibited. Then I visit the dated boys-with-toys style World War Two museum in what was the German underground bunker, where all sorts of ironies of history emerge. A central role in local resistance activity was played by a network of passeurs (what would today be demonised as ‘people-smugglers’) who got people all the way from Calais to Perpignan to escape via Spain. The first part of this dangerous route, before joining a train further south, was by bicycle. Cycling to freedom.
At Secours Catholique it very quickly becomes apparent to me what’s happening. Bypassing the inaction of governments, a real grassroots movement of solidarity is emerging from right across northern Europe. Even apart from the cyclists, just in the time I’m there, there’s a lorry load of mattresses from the Netherlands, a car from Belgium, a van load of dustbin bags brought by some people who work in waste sorting in Bristol and are prepared to spend a day clearing rubbish in the Jungle. We all get stuck in to unloading and carrying. The guy in charge is mildly annoyed with the volunteer who invited us on a day they aren’t normally open: he replies that he doesn’t want to discourage people. But who can blame them for feeling frustrated? There is a sizeable building here completely stuffed, piled high with clothes and other supplies, and they don’t have enough volunteers to sort and distribute them. Even in their new larger building, will there remotely be room for all the clothes being collected across Britain now?
Following a local volunteer who teaches French to refugees, the Belgians give me a lift to the Jungle. They are driving what looks like an expensive car: these aren’t the Jeremy Corbyn types you normally find on pro-immigrant demonstrations. But as they point out, it wasn’t so long ago that Belgians were refugees themselves. This movement of sympathy is spreading. I add a pizza I made in the breadmaking group that my wife leads at the Wesley Methodist Centre in Chester to the Belgians’ hamper of bread. The Belgians and I give them to some men from Darfur, and I give the French-English dictionary to the makeshift school where they learn French. We are warmly welcomed with hot sweet tea and chat. People mill around at the edge of the camp, and just in the time I was there among them there were plenty of white people going past. Two more English people join us around the tea table. It’s getting uncomfortably voyeuristic: one Australian woman asks to take a photo of a man ironing his clothes with a hot frying pan. I squirm with embarrassment at this insensitivity. If anyone is abusing hospitality in this migrant crisis, it’s us, the privileged ones, the ‘non-migrant passengers’. I know that the golden rule when speaking to refugees is never ask why they left, not to reawaken traumatic memories. But after a while chatting one man volunteers such information, about dead brothers and dead parents in Sudan. There is such sadness in his voice, we revert to happier talk about English football.
I want to find Jungle Books, the new camp library, to donate some books – some short stories, a novel by Virginia Woolf, my own book about migrant activism in France since the Sixties. Luckily I was given the phone number of a French volunteer who knows how to find it, and kindly shows this lost, hapless Englishman around. En route there is plenty more sweet Sudanese tea to be drunk: there is a real ethic of hospitality in this camp that puts Europe to shame. And just next to the church that featured in Songs of Praise, there is Jungle Books. Alongside refugees, two English people (you say expats, I say immigrants) are behind the idea. I chat with one of them, a Mancunian, about schemes for harnessing the skills of refugees. It’s striking how many of the refugees you meet here were professional people in their home countries – today, for example, I met a teacher and an economist. The contrast is stark between the archetype of the Calais migrant depicted in much of the British media and those encountered in real life.
I walk down the thoroughfares of the camp. People, more people milling around. But a significant minority among them are ‘non-migrant passengers’. On a good day, when the sun is shining, and if the situation were not so brutally unfair, you would almost say it had the atmosphere of a rock festival – indeed a trend has emerged at British festivals for left-over camping gear to be donated to Calais. Looking for the cyclists, quite by chance I stumble across a separate car-load of young people from Wallasey. This movement is spreading: it’s not just the London hipsters who started the bike ride. Downplaying the charitable element to their voyage, it becomes clear that a key motivation for many visitors is simply to talk to people as fellow human beings and show that not everyone in Britain is hostile or indifferent. This reminds me of a line from an Algerian immigrant interviewed at the time of the police massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961: ‘Never does a European say a word to us outside work and, however, I’d really like sometimes to speak with some, but they don’t even look at us’. Today newly arrived refugees today don’t even have workplace solidarity: they aren’t allowed to work.
The cyclists have set up camp, with tents they will donate to the refugees when they leave. A period of slow fraternisation ensues. Communication is not always smooth. Not every visitor finds it easy to explain what on earth we are doing here. Not all the refugees speak English, though most do. There’s no point speaking French here, for the answer to the English cynics’ question ‘why don’t they claim asylum in France?’ is that refugees from francophone countries usually do claim asylum in France, so don’t get as far as Calais. Even many of the non-francophones who do make it to Calais are now claiming asylum as well, and have been dispersed to places like a disused holiday camp in the Dordogne. Talking to one Iraqi and one Syrian, my stumbling few phrases of Arabic are more than any of the English people around me can manage, but enough for me to understand that they are here because they are fleeing from Daesh. Enough complicity is forged for goodwill to become clear.
A meeting is held to decide how to distribute the bikes. Some of the people there were involved in Occupy London. The meeting is held in a similar style, sitting in a circle, even with hand waving instead of clapping. Considerable efforts are made to be inclusive. Translators are found. Debates are had about how to distribute the bikes fairly given there are not enough for everyone. Should there be one bike per group? Should those claiming asylum in France be given priority, as they will use the bike for longer? But it’s hard to impose your idealism as far as the middle of a refugee camp. There is still a divide: ‘non-migrant passengers’ sit, refugees stand. Many of the arguments to be had about the relationship between migrants and activists are reminiscent of ones 40 or 50 years ago that I wrote about in my book. Not understanding the past, we are condemned to repeat it.
Suddenly, as some people had predicted, not everyone has the patience to wait for the resolution of the debate – a small group of men grab the bikes. A stand-off ensues, between this group and other refugees trying to stop them, while larger numbers of refugees remain standing with worried expressions, concerned that the visitors will leave with a bad impression. They don’t. We understand that being a refugee does not necessarily make you an angel, that these are mostly young men deprived of a normal existence and crammed into a small space, that some people will be pushier than others in that kind of situation. Yet despite all this, I must emphasise again the atmosphere of hospitality in the camp: it’s certainly an unhealthy place to live in for months, but there is nothing remotely dangerous about visiting for the day: it’s far less threatening than, for example, Chester on race day.
It’s nearly sunset. I join the long crowds of people trudging on foot into town. Tonight, there is a thunderstorm, with large hailstones. I chat to the Bristolians at a small punk gig in honour of the cyclists in a pub in central Calais, and then I’m safe and dry in my hotel room. Meanwhile the refugees I have met today remain precarious in tents and makeshift shelters exposed to the wet and the mud, not just tonight but indefinitely. How can I sleep comfortably knowing this? I rise early, and in the dark wheel the folding bike all the way out of town to the end of the road leading to the Jungle. I write on a folding serviette, ‘Bicycle from England – Free for Refugees’. Distribution problem solved. It will be first come, first served. In the words of Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign slogan, though probably not exactly what he had in mind: ‘The France Which Gets Up Early’. The same day, Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls comes to visit Calais. He doesn’t talk to anyone in the Jungle. In town, the hotelier is somewhat nonplussed on hearing the purpose of my visit, recycling negative images of migrants. There is a context to this: business is not good in Calais – this morning I am the only guest in the hotel. I wander around the half-deserted town centre and buy my wife a strangely appropriate souvenir: a table mat depicting people cycling along Calais’ beach and the caption ‘Calais – Jolie balade à vélo’.
Many people who visit the Jungle are trying hard to forge human relationships of equality across borders. But the truth is there is no real equality in Calais: a welcome bit of fraternity, yes, but a gross deprivation of liberty and no equality. We’re all products of a brutally divided world, and Calais is that world in microcosm. A world where some of us are trapped indefinitely in the Jungle, while others of us can walk straight out of the camp and into the ferry terminal, pay 30 euros, show our EU passports, tuck into a British institutional Christmas dinner onboard, and within the hour be approaching the White Cliffs of Dover. In global terms, we are the nomenklatura, the ruling caste of Communist Eastern Europe, the people with special shops and special travel privileges denied to everyone else. We, the nomenklatura, we the ‘non-migrant passengers’, we are outraged by the idea that somebody might choose whether to seek asylum in Britain or France depending on family, community and linguistic ties – precisely because we take for granted our own privileged right to cross the Channel, to choose Britain or France. The worst that happens to my journey is a short delay following on from a blockade by some of the seamen made redundant by the collapse of MyFerryLink, demanding a month’s redundancy pay. The volunteer who showed me to Jungle Books was also a former MyFerryLink worker. The pedestrian entrance to the ferry terminal is quite small and obscure to find, just past a road sign with graffitied anti-border slogans such as ‘Justice – No Entry’. It’s a narrow gap in the fence for a narrow walkway up and into the ferry terminal. A short walk to freedom.
I could not know that that August Bank Holiday Monday would turn out to be two days before the death of Alan Kurdi. A wave of sympathy came and, in time, partly went, not so much for refugees in general as for Syrian refugees in particular, and preferably families with children. In the midst of this upsurge of concern, for me the urgency was to spread word among friends in the UK of fundraising by local French volunteers to build shelters in Calais. I didn’t intend to write down the story of the bikes, until it felt impossible not to. Thoughts of Calais gave me writer’s block by day and haunted my dreams by night. When I did write it down, I didn’t want to publish it. It felt more appropriate reading it out loud face-to-face in front of a sparsely attended public meeting at Chester University in November 2015. Only gradually was my reluctance overcome, for I was very conscious that what I did in Calais was pitifully small compared to the enormity of the tragedy unfolding.
Other people published far more swiftly than me on their blogs their accounts of the August bike ride, and got the immediate message across about what they were trying to achieve to whoever was paying attention. In the months that followed, a cacophony of concerned British politicians and commentators headed to the Jungle and actually listened to refugees. Owen Jones had got there before the cyclists, around the same time as the presenters of Songs of Praise; in the aftermath of the post-Alan wave of public concern there came, first in September, Green Party deputy leaders Amelia Womack and Shahrar Ali, then in January, Jeremy Corbyn. Soon, the entrance to the Jungle was adorned with that badge of twenty-first century cultural significance, a Banksy mural. The mural depicted Steve Jobs with a sack over his shoulder and an Apple Mac under his arm – the son of a Syrian from Homs. Local Calais politicians and newspapers not normally known for their pro-refugee stance suddenly started to express rather more concern for the fate of the artwork than they had for the people it represented. ‘C’est une chance pour Calais’, declared mayor Natacha Bouchart. If migrants repelled the tourists, then culture might attract them. By 2016, mainstream entertainers from Jude Law to Lily Allen had joined the well-trodden path to the Jungle, experiencing a raw emotional encounter with real injustice.
One day, future historians of Britain in the 2010s will pour over such multiple examples of the genre of ‘pilgrimage to Calais’ with the same finesse that historians of the Thirties now examine narratives of the Spanish Civil War. Each time I read about a well-known person’s visit, my instinctive response of ‘Great, but why are they boasting about it?’ was tempered with the realisation they are public figures – it’s their job to shape opinion. Well, I’m a contemporary historian and it’s my job to notice what is significant happening around me, and provide some kind of wider context. And little by little, visit by visit, cup of Sudanese sweet tea by cup of Sudanese sweet tea, opinion did shift, as media coverage shifted from stories of sinister shadowy figures breaking into the Tunnel by night to individual human tales of exile, loss and hope.
In September 2015, the British government first responded to the changing public mood by agreeing to take 20,000 people from camps in countries near Syria over several years. This was better than nothing, but it did not benefit even one refugee already in Europe, even one person spending last winter in the Jungle. For the government, the limits of humanitarian concern lay on conditions of temporal and physical distance. Do join the queue for some crumbs from our table, but please don’t disturb us by having your crisis right now in front of us. Yet this did not end the matter. People could see through the spin, and see that the situation in Calais had not been resolved.
In December 2015, I returned to Calais for a public meeting organised by Migreurop, a brilliant international network of campaigners, on ‘ ‘‘Hotspots’’ and ‘‘processing centres’’: the new forms of the European policy of sorting, encampment and outsourcing of exiles’. Passionate and informed speakers from Mauritania, Turkey, Greece and Italy, alongside French speakers such as the historian Emmanuel Blanchard, explained how the situation in Calais fits into the bigger picture of Fortress Europe – governments’ endless repackaging of the same failed, irrational policies. Though not technically designated a ‘hot spot’, I think the Le Touquet agreement of 2003, and more broadly Britain’s wider relationship with France and the rest of the EU, fits a similar outsourcing logic to the recent shoddy deal between the EU and Turkey: you become our border guards keeping out the refugees we don’t want to see, and in return we dangle before you the conditional possibility of travelling yourself. In the bar of Calais’ youth hostel, I speak to one the founders of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, and we reminisce about past activism. Sadly the fundamentals of the situation today are unchanged since 1993: as the latest edition of the Campsfield Monitor points out, the root cause of the Calais crisis is the Catch-22 situation whereby people wishing to seek asylum in the UK must do so from within the country, yet the government denies refugees any legal means of actually getting here, by fining any ferry or other transport company that takes them.
Next morning, even as local voters cast ballots for or against the nightmare scenario of Marine Le Pen governing their region, I walk to the Jungle, past polling stations, past street murals, past the disused railway lines that once led to the now abandoned Calais-Maritime station. Compared to my last visit, it’s getting harder to escape the attention of the increasing numbers of vanloads of police stationed on the road – now wanting, amongst other things, to minimise contact between Europeans and Jungle residents. I’m scared, but nothing happens: it helps going on foot rather than by car, and perhaps that my skin colour makes it possible to mistake me for just another refugee trudging along the road. I approach some volunteers from Manchester and Birmingham and offer to help. Together we give out sleeping bags and packs of hats and gloves, and I act as impromptu interpreter with the person on the gate at the official French government aid centre. I witness how the Jungle has, and has not, changed. The autumn rains have fallen and made mud – mud of the sort that was a recurrent motif in descriptions of immigrant shantytowns in France in the Sixties. After my last visit, I helped raise funds for wooden shelters: now before my eyes are many such shelters, sturdier than tents for the hazards of winter, thanks to the efforts of local volunteers. Clearly many British volunteers too have stepped into the breach vacated by government inaction. It is vital that they do so, and they have become more numerous and more professionalised. Some of the people I met in December are dentists and pharmacists – British Asians, mostly – using their professional skills to hold surgeries in the Jungle. At the same time, becoming aid workers distributing packs means less time to just sit, listen and learn from refugees: a danger is they start to be seen as passive recipients of charity.
Another danger is that, while all that solidarity is a wonderful thing, it can lead to a paradoxically Anglocentric kind of internationalism, and a certain amount of reinventing the wheel. In June 2016, I read an article in the Observer about Help Refugees, a charity established by a group of British women as a result of their first visit to Calais, also in August 2015. Given the brilliant work they had done, and the abuse they faced below the line, it seemed churlish to criticise their achievements. But the article gave the misleading impression of a complete tabula rasa in relief efforts in August 2015: it made out there was no warehouse in Calais then, when I had seen it with my own eyes. It’s as if all the patient years of work by many local people in Calais, let alone the whole long-term history of immigrant solidarity movements in France, had never happened. So let’s remember that Secours Catholique has been helping displaced persons in France since 1946. For those of a secularist bent, let’s remember that as long ago as the Thirties, the Ligue des droits de l’homme was the largest human rights organisation in the world.
If the only French people we notice are the riot police, the French become the cartoon baddies – as if they were not ultimately the enforcers of British border controls. In November 2015, as retribution for a demonstration that blocked the road past, the CRS fired a large number of tear gas grenades and flash balls straight into an area of the camp where a lot of women and children were living. That kind of thing regularly leads to kneejerk protests at the French embassy in London, but the citizens of the UK too must bear some moral responsibility for repression in Calais. This is a crisis firmly made in Britain. But it’s understandable why some refugees in the Jungle see what they see of heavy-handed policing in France and so discount the idea of claiming asylum there, idealising instead the imagined Britain in their hearts.
Between my two journeys, the number of people in the Jungle had doubled to 6000. By the autumn of 2016, some estimates were claiming 10,000, more than triple the size of when I first went. This is a terrible situation from a humanitarian point of view, but still one we are capable of resolving. I don’t like to talk about numbers, because refugees are not numbers, they are people, but in Calais we are talking about around 1% of the number of refugees Germany has accepted. No-one would have had to spend last winter in the Jungle, or risk their life trying to cross the Channel in the back of a lorry, if the UK had had the courage to reform its policy.
But then a small window started to inch open in Fortress Britain. The weight of twentieth century memory hung over some visits in particular. Harry Leslie Smith, a 92 year old war veteran whose first experience of the continent in 1945 was also his first of a refugee crisis, serving with the RAF in Belgium and Germany, went to the Jungle and wrote powerfully in the New Statesman: ‘The world has changed since I was young. It has not grown harder: just more foolish and selfish’. However the intervention that probably had the greatest practical effect was that of veteran campaigner Lord Dubs, who I remembered as the Director of the Refugee Council when I did work experience there in the early Nineties. At the age of 6 in 1938, Alf Dubs had been brought to London from Prague on the Kindertransport arranged by the businessman Nicholas Winton. A man who saved hundreds of lives but kept quiet about it until Esther Rantzen revealed his role on TV half a century later, Winton was, I suppose, the opposite of what is today known as a ‘virtue-signaller’. When Winton died in July 2015, I was moved to buy some flowers and anonymously leave them at the Kindertransport memorial outside Liverpool Street Station. And in the summer of 2016, Dubs was in a very good position from which to highlight the plight of child refugees today. This isn’t the historical parallel I myself prefer – knowing that some people think it sufficient to point out that any given refugee-producing conflict today is less bad than the Holocaust to deny the validity of all claims for asylum from it – but Dubs’ intervention touched a raw nerve, leading to a surprise government U-turn.
The Dubs amendment provided a tantalising new possibility of escape from the Jungle – only for its implementation, and that of the provision in the Dublin convention allowing family reunifications for asylum seekers under 18 with close relatives in another EU country, to be delayed for months by bureaucratic foot-dragging. Yet only at the very last minute, when it became clear that the French government’s demolition of the Jungle was imminent, did the British government decide to put into practice the Dubs amendment by taking a small number of unaccompanied minors identified in a shambled rush. Mean-minded newspapers hostile even to this too little, too late, gesture changed the subject to claim discrepancies in the claimed ages of the individuals in question. This polemic exposed how the decision by campaigners to make under-18s into a special case was both a strength and a weakness. It made sense to take on the anti-refugee argument at its weakest point, maximising public sympathy to an extent that forced the government’s hand. But it also allowed a problematic narrative to take hold whereby refugees could be deemed unworthy of sympathy purely on account of their gender and age. Come to us, sweet children, but please don’t grow up too quickly in your refugee camp. You will become a man, and men from your country are scary to us. It was the logical outcome of a situation that had earlier seen aid agencies in Calais overwhelmed with well-meant but inappropriate donations of young children’s and women’s clothing – of little use to the vast majority of refugees in the Jungle.
What the UK really needs to do is both simpler and bolder: it needs to allow people to enter the country legally for the purpose of claiming asylum, something which successive governments have quite deliberately and cynically made impossible in pursuit of the fantasy that refugees will just go away. In 2014, the legal support group Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés reported that for the first time a French court had, tentatively, declared the French government to be acting illegally in refusing visas to a Syrian family in Aleppo wishing to claim asylum in France, thereby leaving them no legal means of taking up their fundamental right to seek asylum. Very similar bureaucratic obstacles stand in the way of refugees reaching the UK. So unless we can get the government to change its asylum policy, as a nation we are simply washing our hands of our share of responsibility for Europe’s refugee crisis.
Reversing a quarter of a century of institutionalised inhumanity will require courage. Even if the UK were to take its fair share of Syrians, the problem is that most people in the Jungle are not from Syria: they are from unfashionable conflicts in Sudan, Eritrea or Afghanistan. They may be forgiven for seeing the predominant media focus on Syria as, in the words of one refugee, ‘bullshit humanity’. Can the simplistic debate in the UK cope with the notion that there is more than one refugee-producing situation in the world at any one time? That men as well as women and children can be refugees? That refugee rights are not today’s passing fad, forgotten tomorrow, but something permanently enshrined in international law, that we are legally and morally obliged to live up to all of the time, not just when it is fashionable or convenient? That draconian entry controls are extraordinarily effective at producing danger and suffering, yet extraordinarily ineffective at their ostensible purpose of controlling migration? Can we get real and finally realise that there is no option out there of not having refugees here? And can the ethic of hospitality I experienced in the Jungle be reciprocated? If it can’t, then we are even in worse trouble than I thought.
But with the limited and partial exception of unaccompanied minors, as a nation we implicitly decided all this was impossible. What we collectively decided in the meantime was Brexit – in other words to bury our heads in the sand dunes of Calais. If we can’t see the world’s problems, the problems of the world can’t see us, and will somehow magically leave us alone to mind our own business. Superficially, the enhanced political legitimation of anti-migrant sentiment that accompanied the EU referendum made a satisfactory solution to the Calais crisis appear even further away. In Theresa May’s Britain, where being a citizen of the world is a badge of shame, the debate about migration has ratcheted up a few notches away from Cameron-style faux-liberalism in the direction of Orban-style unashamed xenophobia. When I first made the Berlin Wall analogy, Calais had only fences: now an actual wall is being built. It will be 13 feet high – slightly higher than the Berlin Wall.
Yet it doesn’t logically have to follow that Brexit means a Great Wall of Calais. Reacting understandably against many Brexiters’ fear-mongering over migration, many Remainers started to view the EU as if it were nothing but a benign, cuddly bastion of anti-racism and tolerance. We chose to forget that it is also an exclusive club of ‘non-migrant passengers’, for some EU institutions are as much an agent of inhumane measures against refugees today as nation states are – even if the EU, like nation states, also provides democratic spaces to contest such policies. One of the nobler arguments for EU withdrawal was that it might enable the UK to have a more humane immigration policy: there is no moral reason why migrants from relatively rich European countries should have an automatically higher priority than those in much greater need from Africa and Asia. I distinctly remember a special edition of Channel Four News on Brexit and the BME vote seriously debating this proposition. But for the moment at least, all that seems farfetched, like a badly remembered dream – now rotting in the dustbin of history alongside the likes of £350 Million A Week For the NHS. Among opponents of government policy, pessimism of the intellect has gained the upper hand over optimism of the will.
Yet paradoxically, it is on the French side of the Channel that Brexit has accelerated the pace of change. Since the UK referendum, more and more voices on the mainstream French Right, up to and including Alain Juppé, are questioning why France should continue to play along at being gendarmes for the English. Having for years outsourced the front line of the UK border to France, Brexit now made the British seem spectacularly ungrateful for all their trouble. If the British want to take back sovereignty, runs not unreasonably the argument, then let them take back their border to Dover. As for Marine Le Pen, Brexit is her fall of the Berlin Wall, opening up a historic moment for nationalist reassertion. For its part, the government of Hollande and Valls officially stands, for the moment, behind the Le Touquet agreement. But with a presidential election in view where issues of security will loom large, the imperative to look decisive is paramount. So in the face of the British government’s inaction on the refugee crisis, there will be action from the French government. Hence we are about to witness one of those combinations of muscular repression and lofty humanist rhetoric at which French Socialist governments traditionally excel, in their impossible quest to appear both tough and liberal at the same time. The Jungle will be evacuated, but in a way that respects human dignity. Yeah, right. Dispersion will be made to ‘welcome centres’ across France on a temporary basis while asylum claims are processed.
Walking one recent foggy evening through the post-industrial decay of Birkenhead near the Belfast ferry, the townscape suddenly seemed familiar – visions of Calais came flooding back. I’ve been meaning to phone my friends in a suburb of Bordeaux for that long-dreaded ‘We Need To Talk About Brexit’ chat they asked for in a postcard. I pick up the phone. What’s new? Leaflets have landed on our doormat from the National Front, and a thinly veiled front organisation variously called Les français en colère, or multiple local variants of Les insert-name-of-your-town en colère, denouncing in the strongest terms the planned arrival of 50 Calais migrants to the street behind us. Oh, I reply, I’ve read about Les Calaisiens en colère – sounds like the same organisation. My friends scan and email me the leaflet. Migrants will bring scary things to your neighbourhood and your children, it claims. Burka. Halal. Attentats. No mention that fear and insecurity are precisely what refugees are fleeing from. Oh, it adds, they will tell you that we have had immigrants before – but not all civilisations are at the same level. This ‘good migrants yesterday, bad migrants today’ line is precisely the myth that historians of immigration to France have spent the last thirty years debunking, so I use the leaflet in that week’s teaching on immigration in 1930s and 1940s France.
As I write these lines, night has fallen over Chester, just as it has over Calais. Like the day I first returned from the Jungle, my physical comfort of shelter and heating contrasts to the mental discomfort that comes with an awareness of the plight of those left behind. Back in Calais, at first light tomorrow morning, heavily enforced by police, buses will arrive to collect the refugees for dispersal across France. Over the following days, the bulldozers are scheduled to move in, and Europe’s largest shantytown will itself become history. This year, it is exactly forty years since what was at the time the last major shantytown in France, near the airport in Nice, was demolished. As with shantytown demolitions in the Seventies, the Jungle’s impending demise raises difficult questions for pro-migrant campaigners. Having previously denounced the scandal of the existence of a shantytown, how can they oppose its closure? They did not want people to have to live like that, so isn’t moving them into somewhere with a roof over their heads a victory of sorts? But what if something valuable, an organic sense of community and autonomy, was lost along with the mud and the squalor? Will the more ideologically extreme sort of activist be tempted to use migrants resisting shantytown demolitions as pawns in some unwinnable revolutionary lutte finale? And what will happen in the more policed accommodation that follows? How many people will end up being deported? How many will return to Calais? Or will the new centres end up as one of those provisional solutions that become permanent which periodically mark the history of immigration in France? The official centre at Sangatte was in the past once too: its closure in 2002, and that of various informal encampments since, didn’t solve the Calais crisis, any more than the razing of the Jungle will. Have we forgotten that the current Jungle, the latest in a long line, used to be called the New Jungle? It has only existed on its current site since last year.
Ultimately the only real long-term solution to the Calais crisis lies in an opening of safe legal routes to asylum in Britain. The political polarisation around the refugee crisis on all sides, and in both countries, often makes it hard to see the wood from the trees – to see that this is above all about the inextinguishable desire for human freedom. As Valery Giscard d’Estaing pointedly remarked during the 1974 French presidential election, the Left does not have a monopoly of the heart. So let’s put this in terms which any freedom-loving conservative can understand. Standing at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987, Ronald Reagan said to Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘‘Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall.’’ It’s time for the British public to say, ‘‘Mrs May, open this gate. Mrs May, tear down that wall.’’